Foreign Office Urges Caution As Kashmir Tries To Lure Back Tourists
14 July 2008
: Almost two decades after gunfire first echoed across the mountains of Kashmir, concerted efforts are being made to reintroduce adventure sport and tourism in the Himalayan territory. Tomorrow the inaugural Kashmir Cup international rafting championship will begin on the Sindhu river in Sonamarg, 52 miles north-east of the capital, Srinagar. Men and women from 11 international teams, including Ukraine and the Czech Republic, will participate. 'This is just the beginning,' said Farooq Shah, director of Jammu & Kashmir Tourism, which is sponsoring the rafting event. 'Kashmir is the unexplored frontier of international adventure sport and tourism. There is tremendous scope for a variety of activities besides rafting - mountaineering, trekking, skiing, heli-skiing, trout fishing, high altitude golf.' The 5,425-metre (17,799ft) Mount Kolahoi, known as the Matterhorn of Kashmir, may also once again be within reach of foreign climbers and trekkers. Kolahoi and the other magnificent Himalayan peaks and valleys in Muslim-majority Kashmir have for long been out of bounds, especially after insurgents kidnapped six western trekkers, including two Britons, in 1995. An American trekker escaped, a Norwegian was beheaded, and the rest are still missing, presumed dead. But the access and conservation commission of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, led by Robert Pettigrew of Britain, recently visited Kashmir and appealed to tourism authorities to reinstate the infrastructure for the resumption of mountaineering. As a result the Indian Mountaineering Foundation will soon open its first field office in Srinagar. However the Foreign Office is still advising Britons against 'all travel to or through rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir ... and all but essential travel to Srinagar. If you intend to travel to Srinagar then you should only travel there by air.' It also lists nine violent incidents since last July, including the recent street protests over the lease of forest land to a Hindu shrine board. But the warnings have not deterred all Britons: of the 25,000 foreign visitors to Kashmir in 2007 an estimated 3,000 were British. Some prominent British visitors have taken exception to the Foreign Office travel advisory. Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, the controller of the Army Benevolent Fund, has complained that it was 'unhelpful' and 'overcautious', and that he and his wife 'never once felt in any sort of danger'. After a week-long stay in a houseboat on Dal Lake, Srinagar, late last year, Webb-Carter wrote to his Harrow-based travel agent Indus Tours: 'Our experience was altogether outstanding ... it was tranquil and relaxing and we were looked after by very kind people.' He added: 'I would recommend a visit to Kashmir to anyone. It is a beautiful place kept far so long behind a curtain of insecurity. It is time to visit and catch up on these hidden jewels.' His letter appears as a testimonial for travel to Kashmir on the website of Jammu & Kashmir Tourism.